Category Archives: Banaras

Shaam ho chali hai – a sunset on this chapter of life

Haan yeh zaroori nahin
Jo paas hai, woh saath hai.
Na ye zaroori hai ki
Jo saath hai, woh paas hai.

This is a passage that I’ve always found to be remarkable and meaningful. It’s a beautiful lyric from a mediocre song which was written for a forgettable movie called Radio. It essentially means that whatever is close to you may not be with you, and that whatever is with you or beside you, is not necessarily close to you or at the top of your mind. It’s obviously more beautiful in Hindi than in English, but reflects many of my feelings on the transition between Mumbai and Vancouver.

There are experiences, people and places in our lives that will never be as close to us as we might have held them once, but may continue to keep an irreplaceable part of our hearts with them. Shreya Goshal’s syrupy voice in this lyric describes how a momentary interaction can be more influential than a lifetime of steeping, like a teabag, in the atmosphere of the place we were born into. Who we have always known doesn’t define who we’ve always been. Regardless of place, time or circumstance, we create our own stories by choosing what is of beauty and meaning in our lives. I would like to believe that there is no interaction that we have for no reason. I’m grateful for every person, situation and circumstance that created the ocean of meaning that surrounded me over more than two years in Mumbai and more than three years in India.

In Bombay, I was writing at www.littlebirdbombay.comI’ve been back in Canada for two very full months now, walking a tightrope between remembering and longing for my life in Bombay and trying to create something new and wonderful here. I will continue to write and post photos at my new little nook in the vast space of the internet, and I hope you visit me there:

www.theurbanbeautiful.com

I want to say a heartfelt, heart-full thank you to each and every person who has read, followed, written to me, or felt something from my writing and experiences over the history of this blog. You are the reason I’ve shared so much. Thank you engaging with me and encouraging me: you are so appreciated. Here is to continuing to seek, to learn, and to find beauty and meaning in every experience.

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from bronwyngrace to littlebirdbombay.com!

Thank you for wanting to hear what I have to say.

My memoirs of Varanasi and current writings on Bombay are now at :

www.littlebirdbombay.com

I hope you follow me over there!



My first Hindu wedding

April 17th 2009

“Hello? Hello Bronwynji?”

“Hey Ashish,” I exclaimed. “How are you? Are you at home? I’m just at Haifa checking email, I’m coming soon.”

“Yes all are at home, waiting for you! The Nadine wants to talk to you!”

“Okay, sure…hello? Nadine?”

“Hey Bronwyn! Hope your day was fab! Guess what though, I’ve been invited to a wedding tonight! Want to come?”

“Oh my gosh…yes! Whose wedding? Where? Oh my gosh!”

“I’ll tell you later, but you better hurry home and get beautiful now, you have like half an hour-”

“-totally doable under normal circumstances, but is it forty degrees out, so that is a little challenging-”

“-natch, you came here for a challenge, right?” Nadine laughed. “See you at home, asap! I’m borrowing a suit from Mamta, I’ll grab one for you too.”

I practically skipped down the gali to the house, like the goats, smiling at some neighbours. Inside, Nadine was waiting for me, salwar suit in hand. Ashish lay on the living room cushions, hands clasped behind his head. Dirty fingernails scratching his dark neck.

“Are you ready, Bronwynjii? You look nice.” he giggled.

“Are you joking? I have to have a shower, I just walked home, and you know how I walk!” I raised my arms to check out my sweatstains. Impressive.

“Yes…too fast!” he shouted, as though it was a well known song.


On the rooftop, I grabbed the bedsheet that I use as a towel (to go between the bathroom and my room, a distance of five feet) and locked myself in the bathroom. Turned on the spout and poured buckets of water over my head. Back in in my room, I pulled the tight churidars over my calves, the kameez over my head. I ran downstairs in a cloud of talcum powder, trying to do up a necklace clasp at the same time, trying not to trip on my chiffon dupatta at the same time. Nadine was already ready, bangles clanging on both wrists, suit being adjusted by Mamta.

“The fit is maybe not quite right, but it will do.” Mamta said primly. She’s a bigger girl than either Nadine or I, but looks way more classy in a salwar kameez.

“Good to go? Let’s go!” We followed Mamta out of the house, stepping carefully in the stones and dust in our beaded shoes.

“Ehhhhhh auto!” Mamta yelled in a gruff voice that I’d never heard before. She instantly turned back into her composed self and flipped her dark hair.

Chaal na? Get in.”

An enormous jeep-shaped mini bus stopped in front of us. Several sari-clad women were already crammed inside, facing one another on benches, holding on to bars above. Nadine and I simultaneously hitched up our churidars and hoisted ourselves inside. Mamta and two of her girlfriends also climbed in.The vehicle groaned to a start. We bumped over the pavement, swerving carefully around the groups of people that filled the street.

The site announced itself by colourful strips of fake silk worn by trees. Trellises had been erected to hold more fabric, a temporary garish palace of thin white and red cloth. The ground was astro-turf, like a mini-golf green.

Inside the cloth palace compound, women were dripping in gold jewellery, their sari pallus covered in intricate embroidery; men wearing western suits and looking underdressed compared to their wives. Children roamed the area, wearing miniature suits and puffy dresses. Food was everywhere: a full buffet table spanned the length of two sides of the enormous rectangle.

“Where to start eating?” wondered Nadine aloud, after we’d undergone lengthy introductions with the family of the groom.

“I don’t know. I feel overwhelmed!” Waiters hired specifically for the event scurried between guests, emptying trash bins that dotted the astroturf landscape as fast as they were filled. Still more hovered behind the endless tables that featured a lavish spread of food. They all wore the same uniform: white, sometimes stained, with red bow ties and black vests. Each young man’s near-black skin contrasted with the bright and starched white of his shirt.

We approached one table and picked up sweet and colourful non-alcoholic drinks.

“Thank you bhaiya,” Nadine and I smiled. The boy who served us looked to be maybe sixteen, stray hairs on his upper lip trying to create a mustache that would be worn proudly. Indianly. He nodded solemnly, unsure of how to react to these strange women

“Eat something, na?” Mamta said with her mouth full. Some people ate with plastic utensils, others with their hands. Her friends nodded in agreement, all stirring their own food with fingers or forks. So Nadine and I sampled chow mein, veg manchurian, tandoori naan with punjabi chole, shahi paneer in rich gravy, daal fry over buttery rice with cashews and raisins, masala salted lime soda, rasmalai, gulab jamuns and two different kinds of ice cream. A true feast!

When the bride arrive in a car, everyone began to gravitate to see her come in. She came, looking shy and afraid,

the beautiful bride coming in


“-exactly as the bride should look! She is playing a role here, like an actress you can say. If she is too bold or looking too happy, people will talk about her, like maybe she is experienced, maybe they will doubt her. So it is her job to seem afraid.” Mamta explained.

The bride was tall and fair and beautiful: arguably the ideal Indian bride. She crept forward slowly, almost shaking, eyes lowered to the ground. With the help of two other women, she climbed stairs onto the stage to meet her new husband. The two stood side by side and garlanded one another nervously. Several camera flashes went off every second for many moments. Immediate and extended family made their way onto the stage in waves, older nanis being assisted by younger relatives. They held their hands over the newlyweds’ heads for good luck.

soon to be man and wife!
Mom and Dad were very proud.

Nadine and I watched and ate ice cream. Mamta interrupted:

“It will go on all night, but some of us we have to go to work tomorrow! So let’s go home and take rest.” Reasoning like a true north American. Outside the cloth palace, where astroturf again met dust, we climbed into a similar vehicle. We chatted and laughed all the way home, and then linked arms to walk through the final dark gali to to the house.

“So? How was the marriage? Did you enjoy?” Lalu stood outside the house with his arms crossed.

“Oh my gosh Lalu, it was amazing! The bride was SO beautiful-” Nadine began,

“-the food was SO nice, you would have loved it, chole and-” I gushed,

“-there were so many people, and so many pretty girls! You’ll have to come to the next one!”


dreams

I dreamed that I had again stumbled into my Bombay home after some ridiculous job, late in the night. Home was the 2BHK at Bandstand that I shared with six other girls who had come from all over India to chase their respective dreams. Down from Mount Mary church, up from Shah Rukh Khan’s bungalow.

You used to see Saif Ali Khan and Kareena walking past our building, holding hands,” one of the girls told me.

In my dream I slipped out of my slip -on shoes, dream-tiptoed to my room. Turned on the fan and fell on my bed. That was all I could remember of that dream.

 

I dreamed that I ran again sweating along the west coastline beach of Panama. Fishermen laughed and waved at me. I waved back and felt hugged by air. At the end of my dream-run, I kicked off my runners and sprinted into the ocean, diving under frothy waves. It was the most delicious physical feeling.

I dreamed that at that same place, on the warm sand, I curled up as small as I could. Stretched out as wide and as long as I could. I was as much and as alive as I could be, nestled between dunes of sand in the same way that fireflies were.

 

I dreamed that I had again woken up in the middle of the night in Varanasi, so hot in my own sweat, the fan whipping the steaming air like an oven. I wiped my face on the bedsheet and pulled my maxi nightie over my head. And opened the door to coolness and a wet ground.

In my dream, the rain should not have started yet, why was it wet? I wondered briefly if Lalu had watered the whole rooftop to cool it, as he sometimes used to do. There was light dream rain that was almost mist, just ending. There was the thorough and thick darkness of the very early morning. In my dream I stumbled across the rooftop to the bathroom and flicked the light switch to no results. No power. I found my way though : it was a place that I knew.

I dream-walked back to my bedroom, pulled the dress off over my head, lay down on the bed. Couldn’t do it, so hot. Stood up, pulled the dress back on. Went and drank some water out of the tap (I was crazy in my dream.) Walking back to my bedroom, I could not make it. The smooth concrete wall next to me was wet, I fell against it. Leaning, sliding down simply and slowly. The cotton getting wet and bunching against the wall. The rain and mist fell over my bare legs and my wrinkled nightie and my face, in the thick darkness of the early morning, and I opened my mouth and drank the night.


anything could be happening at once

This day was over for me before it began for you, he says, addressing a girl through a computer screen.

She talks with him, someone far away that she cares for, because it brings a sense of hope and wonder. He talks with her, someone far away that he cares for, because it brings a sense of calm and security. Then, he wishes her a good day, and she him a good night. Then, he goes off into deep sleep (into his good night) and she goes off reassured, but hesitating to have her good day.


Anything could be happening at once. Everything could be happening at once, and it is. All over the world, people do different things for the same reasons, and the same things for different reasons. It just depends.


In Vancouver, kids attend a jumpstart preschool program at a community centre in their neighbourhood. They sit watching a Baby Einstein video, sucking on their fingers. They have popular names like Ava and Madison.

In Mumbai, toddlers sit in a circle in a preschool built by an NGO on the construction site they live on. A teacher enlists one boy to help her distribute stainless steel bowls, a healthy snack of chana and curry leaves. Repeating in English ‘one bowl, one friend.’ The kids smile as they receive their snacks, and wait for prayer before they eat. They have Sanskrit names like Pragati, progress, and Mayuri, peacock.


In New York, students might trek through the snow in winter to get to a coffeeshop. Inside, more people sit at a row of tables. Each has a laptop: if the lights went out, you would only see a row of lit-up apples. They also have some cell phone, some mp3 player, some sort of coffee. Having felt like they are a part of this community, they sit down to get work done.

On Panama’s west coast, lean-muscled fishermen haul boats out of the north pacific ocean and separate their catch into different pails depending on the size of fish. Then they sit on logs and smoke cheap cigarettes and laugh. Having gotten work done, they now feel they are part of a community.

Someone might speak, and another might avoid speaking, to exactly the same end. It would depend.


A man might shout and it would be for threat or warning.

A child might shout and it would be for anguish or uncertainty.

A woman might shout and it would be for a song.

It would depend.


In Canada, an Indian girl might dance sexy in a nightclub because it is her perogative, it is fun, and she feels like it. In these moments she loves her life the most.

In India, a Russian girl might dance sexy in a nightclub because she is being paid to do so. In these moments, she doesn’t feel much. It’s not fun, but not bad, but not good either. It’s nothing, it’s just a job.


In Paris, two lovers might might come to know each other without words. Through their two month relationship, they have mostly known one another through physical closeness. The young man wants more than this arrangement. What an assumption to make, he considers, that because you came close to someone’s body you had come to know something about them.

In Varanasi, two lovers might come to know each other without touch. Throughout the length of their nearly three years together, they have only been able to steal six kisses. The young woman wants more than this arrangement, but is anguish over these feelings. How can she assume to know him having never known this other part of him? She wishes to feel that this should be enough, but doesn’t actually feel that way.

The French lovers come close to one another because in that way, they love each other.

The Indian lovers stay distant from one another, rather than risking all that they have built, because in that way, they love each other.

Someone might touch, and another might not, to achieve the same result. It would depend.


In Delhi, a man in a suit stays in a glass building all day on the phone, because in this way, he earns money. He thinks this about money: aaj hai, kal nahi, phir a jaega do din ke baad.

In Jakarta, a man in a sand-stained shirt and shorts toils in the sun all day on the reconstruction of a Mosque. Because in this way, he earns money. He doesn’t think about money so much.


A man has moved across the United States from one city to another. He came to this new place by choice, encouraged by his family to go. He might be falling asleep in an enormous bed, in an enormous room. With one leg falling over a pillow, and thrashing searching arms, it is obvious that he is unused to sleeping alone. He speaks into silence, asking his god why.

A girl has moved across India from a village to a big city. She came to this new place by force, stolen from her family. She might be falling asleep on a lumpy mattress on the second floor of a brothel in Mumbai’s red light district. She speaks into a cacaphony of car horns and fuzzy old love songs, thanking her god that tonight she is sleeping alone.


April 15th 2009


Crows scream from the roof of the Ganga Mahal. Rusted metal overhangs hang over each window, edged in more metal that looks like dark coloured lace. Paper chewed through by bugs.

Every few mornings, my Indian brother Ashish’s mother Meera walks to the ghat.

She moves down the stairs slowly, measuredly, stepping onto her right foot and then bringing her left to follow it. Shifting her weight, clutching extra sari fabric in a fist. As she wades into the Ganga, in the water from the waist-down, a ragpicker carries his bag, bigger than his own body, up the stairs. Retracing the path she took down. He disappears into the lane.

Meera swishes in the water, heavy arms grazing the river. Getting wet.

A plain man in a lungi sat in the middle of the stairs and rubbed tobacco on his palm with his thumb. Until he had to move, because a thin girl in a party dress was sweeping. Clouds of brown dust coming into the grey air. Skinny legs and arms coming out of a full skirt and puffed sleeves.

Meera sings in a thin voice, om namah shivaaaaiii, dunks her head under the water once. Pigeons on the lace-edged palace flutter into the air and disperse, and disappear.

The paper boy comes by on schedule, and hands the paper to Lalu who’s standing on the verandah. As he leaves, he turns to face the Ganga. His clasped hands travel upwards to his forehead. He whispers some words, some secret prayers, before his hands drop back to his sides. The paper bag is picked up again and he turns into the gali.

Twice, Meera dips her head into the river, flipping her black hair out of her face. Water droplets gather
in her eyelashes, pool in the cavities of her ears.

Goats frolick together on the ghat. A little girl named Chandini skips up the stairs with them, coming from her bath. Her sopping clothes made thwak sounds as her thimb limbs pulled her, bounding like the goats, up the stairs. The water that she carried up the stairs in her clothes abandoning ship and gathering into little rivers, to head back down to the big river where it came from.

And again. She pours a vessel of water held high over her head in a surya namaskaar, face crumpled and frowning with faith and intensity. Facing the rising sun every day again, because what else is there to do.


Haathi

Exactly the texture that you would imagine: a cross between a newborn mouse and a piece of toast. Soft, scratchy.


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